EUAN MACLEOD – Lessons in Isolation – 23 March-10 April 2021
Euan Macleod and well known New Zealand photographer Craig Potton spent a few nights together near the top of the Tasman Glacier early in 2020. In the uncontained Australian fire season of summer 2019-20, not only was the sky above much of Aotearoa stained a reddish brown by smoke, dust and ash, there were reports of ‘caramelised’ snow on Franz Josef Glacier and elsewhere in the Southern Alps. Media photographs featured helicopters flying through dense smoke and landing on beige-coloured alpine snow and ice.
The sepia shadows that punctuate the alpine ridges and slopes in Euan Macleod’s recent paintings strike a familiar note with followers of his work on the far side of the Tasman Sea. In the uncontained Australian fire season of summer 2019-20, not only was the sky above much of Aotearoa/New Zealand stained a reddish brown by smoke, dust and ash, there were reports of ‘caramelised’ snow on Franz Josef Glacier and elsewhere in the Southern Alps. Media photographs featured helicopters flying through dense smoke and landing on beige-coloured alpine snow and ice.
For all its strangeness, there was something almost familiar about this phenomenon. Macleod has been inhabiting such a collision or overlapping of New Zealand and Australian realities for many years. The cover image of Euan Macleod Painter (Piper Press 2010) presented a naked artist-figure with easel out in the blazing Australian desert, working away on a painting of Lyttelton Harbour (near Christchurch) with sailboat and verdant surrounding hills.
These recent canvases are an inversion of that desert- painter of 2010. In an alpine environment reminiscent of Aotearoa, with last summer’s stained ice and snow in evidence, Macleod’s protagonist now finds himself confronted by memories of the burning continent of his ‘other life’. The campfire that warms him is one manifestation of the flammable Australian flora (and, beyond that, the burning bush of Moses in the Desert). If the alpine environment is stained, so too is the climber. In numerous works, a bush-fire shade of brown fills his outline. He is neither insulated against nor separate from what is happening around him.
Macleod’s protagonist feels the alpine cold. Wind blows through him. Snow blinds him. The high altitude gets to him. Equipment brought along for the expedition offers little relief: His clothing appears flimsy and the tent (with open flap) looks insufficient for the conditions. The broken eggshell-hull of a boat (which appeared mid-desert in an earlier series) is of no practical use. Macleod’s steep mountainsides are manifestly of the avalanche-prone kind.
Whether standing, climbing or becoming a waft of ascending smoke, the figure aspires to attain greater height, to reach clearer air, to bathe in a light in which all is revealed. He climbs to extend himself. He climbs in the belief that, by sheer dogged physical labour, he might climb up and out of himself. Across treacherous terrain, he is often being led or followed by a rope which resembles a thread from an unstitched blanket — an umbilical cord linking him to where he has been and, possibly, where he is going. In some instances, this climbing rope is transformed into a tightrope, across which he finds himself walking — or is it a nervous dance? (This motif is explored much further in Macleod’s recent collaboration with writer Lloyd Jones, High Wire (Massey University Press, 2020.))
Sometimes Macleod’s figures feel more like apparitions than bodies in the physical world. Human forms emerging from smoke or storm might be versions of the artist’s self—in ongoing formation—yet they are also tupuna (ancestor figures) — emanations of the artist’s late father, his artistic forebears (Rembrandt, Giacometti, Nolan…) and his late dealer/mentor Frank Watters.
If Euan Macleod could be seen to be revisiting accustomed themes in these recent paintings, that is far from a satisfactory conclusion. You have to leave something behind in order to ‘revisit’ it. In this instance, the artist’s themes have remained constantly present in his studio, as in his life: The encumbered/unencumbered figure lost and found in its landscape; the conditions of loss and grief; the fading, dissolving landscape which somehow, at the same time, becomes more real. His oeuvre increasingly configures as one continuous encounter, tussle and epiphany.
– Gregory O’Brien
Wellington, July 2020
Euan Macleod was born in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1956. He was awarded a Diploma
of Fine Arts (Painting) by the Ilam School of Fine Arts, Canterbury University, in 1979, before
moving to Sydney in 1981. He has held more than fifty solo shows in New Zealand and
Australia and has taken part in numerous group exhibitions in Australasia and
Euan’s work is represented in many private and public collections, including the National
Gallery of Australia, Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand, and the Metropolitan
Museum, New York. Euan has won art prizes in Australia, including the Archibald in 1999,
the Sulman Prize in 2001, the Blake Prize in 2006, the New South Wales Parliament's
inaugural Plein Air painting prize in 2008, the Tattersall’s Landscape Prize in 2000 and 2009,
the Gallipoli Art Prize, 2009, and the King’s School Art Prize in 2011.